It’s 2:00 AM. I’m standing in line at a convenience store holding a half gallon of milk.� The stores part of a national chain. I don’t much care for it but it’s on the way home. A young guy and his girlfriend wait anxiously in front of me. When it’s their turn at the register the kid over confidently swings a six pack of Budweiser on top of the counter. His girlfriend, who can’t be more than sixteen, drops a pile of candy bars next to the beer.
“This,” the kid says, “And I’d like some Philly Blunts.”
The middle aged clerk looks tiredly at the kid. “You got some ID?”
“Naw man,” the kid says. “But I’m twenty-one.”
“I need to see a drivers license,” the clerk drones.
“Yo man,” the kid says, his voice quickly filling with frustration, “I said I’m twenty one.”
“It’s company policy,” the clerk says, “I’ve got to ID anyone who looks like they’re under thirty’.
The kid shrugs. ‘Forget it then,’ he says. “Ring up the candy. I’ll put the beer back.”
“Oh no,” the clerk says, reaching out to take the beer, “I’ll put the beer back.”
“Dude,” the kid says. “I can put it back.”
The clerk puts his arms around the beer like he’s protecting it. An annoying grin spreads across his face. “I’ll take care of it,” he says.
The kid’s frustration flash boils into anger. He pushes the candy bars across the counter.
“You can put everything back then,” the kid seethes.
The clerk steps back, alarmed. Candy bars fall to the floor. The kid grabs his girlfriend’s hand and they storm out the front door. The clerk and I watch them go.
“Those jerks,” the clerk fumes. “Trying to get one past me? Who the fuck they think they are?”
“Just an angry young man,” I say, putting my milk on the counter.
The clerk looks at me. Hair greasy and unkempt, his faces been pallored by working too many nights under fluorescent lights. I’ve been going into this store for years and I’ve always been frustrated by this clerk’s maddening slowness. It takes him forever to ring up a purchase or turn on the gas pump. I’ve seen him make customers wait until he’s done obsessively inventorying the cigarettes. He reminds me of how angry smallish people slow down while crossing the street, blocking traffic, as if telling the world that these streets are their turf. Make no mistake about it – this store is the clerks turf.
“Well fuck those kids,” the clerk says. “I’m the manager of this store. No one’s getting anything past me.”
“I guess not,” I reply.
“Punks,” the clerk snorts. “It’s enough that corporate hounds my ass about checking IDs”.
I say nothing. There’s something unsettling in the clerk eyes, a sadness slowly evolving into meanness. I want the clerk to ring up my milk. Instead he grabs a piece of paper from under the counter and waves it at me.
“You see this?” he says. “All employees got to write down our company’s pledge not to sell alcohol or tobacco to minors and sign it.”
I look at the sheet. At the top’s written legalese about not selling smokes and booze to children followed by a pledge to always check IDs. In the blank space provided the employees have copied out the legalese word for word and signed it.\
“We have to write this out everyday,” the clerk says.
“You have to write out the company’s policy and sign it everyday?” I say, aghast.
“Look,” the clerk says, pulling out a stack of paper. “These are all the forms every employee filled out this week.”
“Jesus,” I reply, “That’s like having to write ‘I will not chew gum in class on the blackboard a hundred times.'”
“Whatcha gonna do?” the clerk says, shrugging.
I feel sorry for the clerk. Between IDing snot-nosed kids, facing the possibility of getting shot during a hold up, and being under video surveillance all day – he has to put up with demeaning corporate bullshit. I’d rob my own store.
“Can I see that again?” I say, pointing to the pledge sheets in his hand.
Suddenly the clerk grows suspicious and clutches them to his chest. “I really can’t let you see these,” he says.
“I’m just curious.”
The clerk holds up the sheets but takes three paces backwards. He doesn’t want me to read it. A secretive little shit eating smile spreads across his face.
My anger flares. This clerk’s an idiot. He deserves to be here. What kind of person shows such blind loyalty to a company that videotapes his every move, treats him like a baby, and, in the end, will dispose of him like yesterday’s trash?
I quickly temper my anger. I have no idea why this fellow’s doing what hes doing. Maybe he’s taking care of sick parents or children. Maybe being a clerk in a convenience stores a good thing for him. Maybe he’s a recovering drunk, an ex-addict, or struggling with mental illness. Maybe he’s just a regular guy struggling to provide for his loved ones. People look at me all the time and wonder why I wait tables. Maybe they’re thinking the same things Im thinking.
I struggle to get my judgmental passions under control. It’s probably better I don’t know anything about this guy. Ignorance is often the hand maiden of compassion.
The clerk rings up my milk.
“You want a bag?” he asks.
“Yes, thank you.”
The clerk, with agonizing slowness, peels a plastic bag off the pile. “Yes sir,” he says, proudly. “No kids are getting past me. No way. Fuck ‘em.”
I half remember a quote from Raymond Chandler. “Sometimes people spend a lifetime protecting a dignity they never had.” This clerk is one of those sad people – building his house on a foundation of sand. I take my milk, say thank you, and walk out into the cool night air.
I’m never going into that store again.